Ph.D. student’s creative video shows how beavers help prevent wildfires

Published: February 21, 2019

beaver building a dam to stop wildfire

Beavers have long been chewed out for causing damage wherever they decide to set up house. What many people don’t realize, however, is that beavers’ landscaping efforts also contribute to climate resiliency.

How? When a beaver builds a dam across a stream, a large pond forms. From there, the beaver digs a series of channels, which it uses to swim around and transport building materials. As the water spreads, it creates lush wetlands, which in turn foster biodiversity, improve drought resistance, and help prevent the spread of wildfires.

“Beavers are the keystone species and ecosystem engineers,” says Emily Fairfax, a PhD candidate in geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “When beavers move into a landscape, they completely modify its physical aspects to suit their habitat. When they do that, they also create a complex wetland system, including habitat for other animals.”

Fairfax studies the ecohydrology of riparian areas (where land and water meet), especially those affected by beavers. The self-described “beaver dam enthusiast” wants to improve public perception of Castor canadensis. She’s also a grad student in search of a job, and she needed a compelling way to explain her research to potential employers.

So, Fairfax got crafty. Armed with construction paper, a corkboard and a rainbow of felt, she made a 44-second video that illustrates, succinctly and adorably, how beaver dams serve as natural fire barriers. It only took her a few hours to create this stop-motion masterpiece—her first attempt at the genre—using her smartphone.

Fairfax admits she wasn’t always a fan of North America’s largest rodent. As a college student, she led canoe trips in northern Minnesota, and beaver dams often got in her way. But eventually, she says, “It hit home that humans aren’t the only ones changing the landscape. That interest in wetlands and beavers stuck with me, and I finally decided I like this enough to turn it into my career.”

If you still think our long-toothed national symbol is a pest, visit a beaver pond and admire its rich biodiversity. Many threatened and endangered species depend on wetlands for survival. “The animals that come along when beavers build their ecosystems have a lot of value in themselves,” says Fairfax. “I like to visit beaver ponds to look at the birds—a lot of them like to nest along the banks.”

If fire strikes, beaver ponds provide refuge not only for their builders, but also for the little creatures that might not be able to escape, Fairfax adds. “If you’re interested in preserving the natural beauty of the ecosystem around you, it’s easier to let a beaver do that than to do it yourself.”

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